Measuring Value in Wikis and Blogs


Note: Elements of this post also appeared in “A Little About Cookies“.

Introduction

I’m going to start this paper off by sharing some personal history. My job function is as a researcher, not in a single field but many, and often researching in these several fields as close to simultaneously as a single person can. [[Back in Mar ’06]] I’ve had twenty-two books published in five fields of expertise and over 200 articles in more topics than most people care to count. I’m currently finishing my 23rd book and already have my 24th mapped out. I’ve held professorships and been a guest lecturer at several institutions of higher learning. My writing and work is referenced worldwide and I’m invited to speak at conferences both scientific and business, on topics ranging from “Linguistic and Cultural Migration of the Gaelic Language and Peoples” to “Six Web Techniques that Get New Business”.

This information would be a shock to people who knew me in high school, college and my early professional life. In high school I was labeled a chronic underachiever — I was always distracted by this or that and couldn’t focus where my teachers wanted me to. I graduated somewhere close to the middle of my class, was told by my guidance counselor to prepare myself for a life of stacking cans at the local grocery, did poorly in college, and had trouble holding down a job for longer than a few months at a time. Job reviews cited my inability to focus or complete projects assigned to me.

Mislabeling is Dangerous

The discrepancy between then (unfocused, an underachiever) and now (CRO and Founder of an international company, patents, publications) can be attributed to two basic items; one is that I didn’t accept the labels given to me and the other is that the world and the market that drives it changed. Today the knowledge and skills exist to recognize that I wasn’t distracted nor did I lack focus, I was bored. My lack of focus was actually my search for something to interest me. Today I make a living by grabbing pieces from one field and pieces from another field to create solutions in a third field not normally associated with the other two. Currently, for example, I’m studying how the behavior of pulleys is similar to the responsibilities of the Plunge Protection Team (http://tinyurl.com/9ajtu, http://tinyurl.com/8gp4c, http://tinyurl.com/a8lrv, http://tinyurl.com/bx994, http://tinyurl.com/dbzda, http://tinyurl.com/28463). This might fall into the field of econophysics (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Econophysics, http://www.unifr.ch/econophysics/), it might not. I never know where my explorations will lead me, I only rejoice in discovering where I’ve gone. [[Anyway…]]Between then and now I’ve also learned mislabeling is dangerous.

Just as I rejected the labels given me, so can people either accept or reject the labels given things around them. Labels serve a good general purpose gone bad. The good general purpose is to quickly identify something. Most people don’t have to think twice about what’s shown in the picture below.

Most people know that the proper name for what is shown below is “that thing doctors use when they whack your knee” (it’s a “percussion hammer”). Labels add definition out of context — the image above left isn’t a just a “hammer”, it’s actually a “rip claw hammer” — but in a doctor’s surgery with a patient on the examining table a doctor asking for a hammer probably doesn’t have to specify a “percussion hammer”. The context adds definition to the content.

Percussion Hammer

Labeling’s good purpose goes bad when

  1. exact labels don’t yet exist for what is being labeled
  2. the exact nature of what is being labeled is misunderstood
  3. labels are used out of context, causing confusion
  4. those applying the labels don’t apply sufficient rigor in the labeling process to understand what they’re labeling

Seeking Definitions

Web analytics, behavioral analytics and their kin is an area where labeling’s good purpose has gone, if not bad, into some decidedly gray areas. Not all web analytics methods and packages work equally well for all companies, and the behavioral field is so nascent that it doesn’t matter if you’re talking about behavioral marketing, analytics or targeting because exacting definitions don’t exist yet. The analytics tools which are the best for company A might be the worst for company B because companies A and B have different business models (item 4 above), have different KPIs (items 1 and 2 above), define “standard” metrics differently but use the same terms in their definitions (items 3 and 4 above), use a label in a way it was never intended (item 3 above), … Companies need to determine what they really want to measure before they can decide the best way to measure it.

The most basic metric in web analytics, the conversion, can be likened to a body count, and all metrics beyond that standard are some variation of people as numbers; be it a sales funnel or page requests per user IP. Get a group of web and behavioral analysts together and ask for thoughts on how to accurately measure PagesViewed [[In Apr 2006 NextStage was testing a “Pages Viewed” report for web traffic that went beyond the standard (surprise!) analysis. The standard analysis indicates that a page was opened and perhaps a link clicked. NextStage’s PagesViewed report, now complete and in operation for several years, accurately determines that a given page caught and held a visitor’s attention, specifying how and why their attention was caught and held, regardless of any subsequent action.]]— a measure of how many requested pages visitors actually focused their attention on regardless of any subsequent action taken — then sit back and watch the fun [[(The question appeared in an online forum at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/webanalytics/message/5338?threaded=1 with a responses given.)]].

As useful as the metaphors of conversion, sales funnel, page requests et al are, they don’t allow for an understanding of the community that is created when consumers interact with information.4,6Some analytics firms create behavioral trees in the hopes of understanding what consumers want. Those trees are firmly rooted in the beliefs of those creating them, not consumers who are suppose to climb them. To paraphrase Frantz Fanon, a community will evolve only when both sides agree on a common means of communication, and that requires that both sides agree up front what the goal of the communication is going to be. This mutual agreement isn’t going to be reached in the current best practices of analytics as long as the communication is one-sided and one-handed.

Yet it is consumers, not companies, with the most interesting stories to tell if analytics is going to climb out of its historical ghetto and take its place as an evolutionary force in understanding consumer motivations and behaviors. Consumers, for their part, want to tell their stories. That’s what people do, they tell stories to each other, some true, some not. It’s how people create communities; we share experience, we seek to touch each other with words if not our hands, and all people do it. Even people who push others away need something to push against, to touch, until the distance is a comfortable one.

Listening to consumer stories and creating a true and natural dialogue isn’t difficult. There will be many people with many different stories. Once it is learned that companies are listening, more consumers will come wanting to tell us what they have to say. Getting them to share their stories will be easy. Convincing them they need to be heard, that what they have to say matters, that their words will become the industry’s actions, will be difficult. The world of consumerism is not a trusting world.

Searching for Measures, Finding New Values

How do we create this dialogue? Focus groups are a start. It would be a challenge to get a dialogue going with a sufficiently large population to insure that patterns in consumers’ storytelling both emerge and are statistically valid, although prediction markets do this in a limited way. The problem with both focus groups and traditional prediction markets, however, is that those participating are vested in the outcome. Traditional storytelling’s vesting doesn’t come from economic gain, however. Storytelling’s vesting comes from giving people a recognizable and honored place — people stop what they’re doing and pay attention for some period of time — in an immediate social setting. Case studies — an obvious form of business story telling — give a company a recognizable place in the company’s immediate market setting. 10Qs — another form of business story telling — give that same company a recognizable place in that company’s immediate investor setting.

What kind of social setting can we create to allow storytelling as a consumer exercise? Let me share some personal examples.

  1. We found a wine bottle opener which is both elegant and simple; put the opener on the top of a wine bottle, press the lever, open the bottle and eject the cork. One move and we’re sipping our favorite chianti. We were so pleased with this gadget that we went out and bought several to give as gifts to friends. We gift wrapped the wine bottle openers along with some bottles of wine for each, and each gifting was a presentation which all parties enjoyed and delighted in.
  2. We purchased a truly universal remote; a single device which can control (apparently) infinitely many devices. I had it controlling our DVD player, a stereo system, TV, VCR and cable box in about an hour. Now I can press a single button on the remote, “Watch TV”, and the device turns on the TV, turns on the cable box, turns on the stereo, sets the stereo to the TV input, and allows me to control the stereo volume and the cable box tuner with a single control and without needing to respecify which piece of equipment I want to control each time I want to control it. The same is true for listening to the stereo, playing a CD, DVD, or tape. I started telling our friends the next day.[[This post was originally written in Mar ’06. The remote of which I wrote so wonderfully died within a year and the manufacturer no longer supports it. It cost about US$100. We did find a universal remote that cost $10. No idea who makes it. It’s lasted three years so far.]]

Both of these items share a commonality which might not be intuitively obvious. The key to the commonality is the question; “What were we sharing with our friends?”

The obvious answer might be “some gadgets” and, while accurate, the single element which exists in both anecdotes is this: “we were successful in a way we had not been successful before.” The wine bottle opener allows us to open wine bottles easily and without having to sift out cork particles while pouring. The universal remote allows us to control all our electronics with a single button on a single device. We weren’t sharing devices, we were sharing successes. Sharing each device entailed demonstrations, laughter, anecdotes and, of course, the transmission of success. The wine bottle opener and the universal remote were the vectors, the message was “Look at us! We’re being successful, and we’re going to help you to be a success!” Count how many infomercials there are claiming the exact same thing and you’ll begin to appreciate just how powerful and intoxicating the transmission of success can be.

But the dialogue on the infomercials or between our friends isn’t about devices, it’s about success with devices. The device which made me successful is just an element of the story. I share myself and by doing so make myself vulnerable to you, hence triggering a “trust” response in you. I used a similar storytelling technique in the opening of this paper; I shared about myself, and the success I’ve experienced in my life is just an element of the story. It is doubtful many people who read this paper would pay attention to wiki and blog analysis presented by someone stacking cans on the 3rd shift of the local grocery. But from a recognized researcher with a publishing history in business and science? That person will be listened to.

The value in storytelling, then, is communicating personal success (the anthropologist [[, folklorist]] and mythologist in me also knows that lots of storytelling deals with “cautionary tales”, those that deal with bad outcomes for the story’s protagonist. These are still success stories because the storyteller’s hidden communication is “See? This didn’t happen to me and if you listen to me it won’t happen to you.”). The measure is how actively (speed and distance) that personal success is shared with others (and the goal is to have that personal success so overwhelming that person A must share their success with person B).

Success and storytelling are new values and measures in the field of analytics, so how do we measure them?

Wikis and Blogs

A recent development in online cultures are wikis and blogs. Wikis and blogs evolved from bulletin boards (BBS) and chat rooms. Both BBS and chat rooms have long been known for the social information they provide. Sociologists and criminologists who have actively studied BBS and chat rooms are now recognizing postings and interactions in wikis and blogs as valuable portents of criminal activity. The phenomenon of criminals using wikis and blogs has become so predominant that NHPR did a talk show on the topic to bring information to parents and others:

  • Blogs, chat rooms, online journals, picture posting sites…the list of places children and teenagers visit on the Web is endless. Young people may share personal details of their lives with their computers, but not necessarily their parents.
  • A reason chat rooms, blogs and wikis are popular with youth and a hunting ground for criminals is due to the nature of the society they create; you are valued and trusted by your peers and others. There is a dark side, though. Should a child be ostracized from the online society the child knows it is being ostracized but has no knowledge of who is ostracizing them therefore no one can be trusted.)

Calvin Andrus, head of the CIA’s Office of Application Services, published “The wiki and blog: toward a complex adaptive intelligence community” in which he argues that wikis and blogs are necessary for intelligence workers to share information and experiences in order to improve overall intelligence responsiveness. The science and research communities have also embraced wikis and blogs as valid publication arenas as noted in Nature (see any of The expanding electronic universe, Science in the Web Age: Joint Efforts, Science in the Web Age: The real death of print and Science in the Web Age: Start your engines). Wikis and Blogs are starting up among all socio-economic groups, some fostered by commercial concerns and others growing from personal curiosity to international concerns. Wikipedia is an example of this.

What all of these have in common is that they are communities where storytellers gather to tell their stories. What determines “success” varies from community to community and is usually based on a personal concept rather than a standardized factor. In some cases success is determined by the number of entries made into the venue. In others success is measured by the number of comments made in response to a single posting or entry. Others count success by the number of times an entry is referenced elsewhere. This latter metric is an element of Google™ and other search engines’ ranking mechanism and is a critical factor in scientific and academic communities where it is known as “impact factor“.

An example of impact factor and social recognition being equated in an individual blogger’s psyche can be seen in the following:

My first post to my blog was a little paragraph about my obsession with cycling, and I remember feeling a little … let down. Sure, it was remarkably easy. Write. Click a button. Reload. Cool! But then what? It wasn’t until someone left a comment that I was hooked. An audience! Someone is reading!

I have to admit I’m addicted now. I bet I check my stats a half-dozen times a day, anxious to see if anyone has linked to me or see what posts are most popular today. Our users agree — whether their audience is just friends and family or thousands of readers — they’re having more and more fun with their blogs and investing more time in them. And that means content across the web is getting better.

I started researching the social interactions of BBS in the early 1990’s and allowed the research to grow over time to include chat rooms, forums, email lists, wikis and blogs (the type of BBS, chat rooms, email lists, blogs and wikis included (alphabetically) adult content, company focused user group, dating, educational, hobby, news, personal interest, product focused user group, professional (association, development and organization), research, science and virtual reality). NextStage now carries much of this research forward. One thing learned is that the characteristics described in the previous paragraph

  • are most evident in electronic venues which are started and maintained by interested individuals
  • are not as evident in electronic venues which are started and maintained by corporate concerns
  • recognizable and enforced policing and posting standards negatively impact the amount and quality of communications that occur (Quality of information was determined by an algorithm involving the number of subsequent communications generated by distinct individuals. Amount of information was determined by an algorithm involving semantic complexity of all communications generated starting with the zeroeth communication)
  • electronic venues which are self-policing have greater quality and amount of communications.
Some information has value long after direct interest in the information has waned

At close to fifteen years of observation and research, the pattern which has emerged plays well into the concepts of success and storytelling as new, recognizable and valid value measurements in the virtual world. What grew out of the above and ongoing research is a recognition of the importance of emerging social networks as the basis for the transmission of success through storytelling.

The true use of success and storytelling as value and measure takes into account the ways social networks evolve through time, and especially how they evolve through internet time. Internet time itself takes several things into account; what is shared today might be irrelevant tomorrow, but what is shared might also be referenced repeatedly through time, or cyclically depending on information content. Consider the chart on the previous page which shows the number of additions to a series of threads over time (red) and the number of reads the same series of threads received during that same period of time (green). The number of additions (red) alone might lead one to think the material’s value has run it’s course. The number of reads (green), however, shows that this material is still valued even though no new information is being integrated into the thread. Other elements which came from this study demonstrate that the social networks of the web aren’t tremendously different from non-web social networks. For example, in web based social networks with both genders present

  • males more often initiated or led discussions in mixed gender groups
  • females more often offered or sought advice in female dominated groups
  • expertise was most often assumed among males
  • expertise was most often recognized among females
  • age and gender were most often equated with expertise in scientific/academic groups
  • only individuals who were regular contributors were assumed to be contributing valuable information
  • recognizable social hierarchies (dominance, gaming, fool/clown/crone archetypes) evolved with the time period of evolution dependent on traffic load
  • policing most often occurred with two polarized extremes (group ignoring the offender, group rejecting the offender). The exception was moderated groups where offenders which publicly remonstrated for their behavior which, of course, demonstrated group ownership and continuity of defined purpose.
  • new comers were most often welcomed and went through a period of time learning the rules of the society and creating alliances/friendships. Individuals not allowing for this adjustment period (required for both the group to grow familiar with the newcomer and for the newcomer to learn the rules of the group) tended to be publicly “talked to” by group selected “elders”
  • in scientific/academic groups senior members often took on the roles of parents stopping children’s squabbles and offering definitive “last words” on contentious subjects

All cases of the above are demonstrations of what is becoming known as “Web 2.0”, a transition of the internet from its present state of information silos to a highly interactive social setting. It is interesting that what some are calling Web 2.0 is what Berners-Lee, whom many credit with the creation of the world wide web, originally envisioned the web to be.

An Example of Success and StoryTelling

Several companies recognize the power of social networks as relevancy and credibility channels for products and services. One such company, DelahayeMediaLink, used a similar methodology with both humans and computers; scanning through the press to determine if DelahayeMediaLink clients are receiving good press or not. NextStage demonstrated the power of StoryTelling and Success as a measure and value of how a product and/or service is actually perceived by a given population by taking a DelahayeMediaLink press release and following comments on key features of the press release through time (the original Delahaye’s Media Compass Press Release 101303DMC.HTML is shown below). This project was taken on for research purposes and grew out of delivering (what was then) a NextStage TargetTrack (A description of current NextStage product offerings can be found at NextStage Tools Explained) report on this same material to David Cappuccio, then Delahaye Sr. VP and COO. NextStage determined the standard TargetTrack™ factors at that time (Gender, Age Group, Comprehension, Messaging) and then tracked how content elements were redistributed by the media through time. What was quickly recognized by analyzing StoryTelling and Success features was that the MediaCompass concept was intriguing but was not forward-thinking enough for many in the target community. Necessary features for the MediaCompass service to be accepted included

  • a greater recognition of the nature, transmission and proliferation of information in the digital age
  • a pro-active capability which allowed clients to put their own spin on potentially damaging media content
  • a need to be aware of “impact factors” globally and not just regionally or even super-regionally regardless of client business size and reach
The DelahayeMediaLink 101303DMC.HTML page. Content elements were tracked through time to determine this service's StoryTelling and Success values to its target markets.

These factors were borne out in the evolution of the MediaCompass product as documented in a Delahaye case study:

“Media intelligence is no longer just about reporting and analyzing press coverage after an event or a financial quarter. This case study shows that media evaluation now reflects real-time as well – tracking the world’s 24 x 7 news media. Delahaye evaluation tools play a vital role in keeping global communication professionals ‘on message,’ ‘informed’ and ‘up to date’ – helping them make day-to-day decisions in real time.”

Conclusions

What has been discussed and described in this paper is

  • the evolution of the internet from a commerce metaphor to a social metaphor,
  • and that as web technologies advance new measures and values need to be in place to determine economic worth and collateral.

NextStage’s suggestion is that StoryTelling is a measure and Success is a value which can be used to accomplish these goals, especially in wikis and blogs.

It is likely that these and future developments in collaborative internet communications will closely involve the evolution of elaborate and extended social networks. Examples of StoryTelling and Success being used to determine economic predictability are available [[in several NextStage tools, trainings and consultings]].


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